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Inclusive language: the Vatican sets the limits

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 Contents - Sep 1997AD2000 September 1997 - Buy a copy now
Editorial: Inclusive language: the Vatican sets the limits - Michael Gilchrist

The long struggle to prevent the redefinition of Catholicism into the religious expression of the feminist movement - which in its present incarnation saw the light of day only in the 60's - is apparently wending its way to a slow but definite conclusion.

This is the result of two steps taken by the Holy See.

The first was the Holy See's unbending refusal to countenance the abandonment of the two thousand-year-old tradition, that the priesthood should be confined to men. The theological cacophony with which this was greeted did little more than confuse the faithful and give theology a bad name.

The second decisive - and, one hopes, conclusive - decision, was the Vatican's refusal to countenance a mass of devices to whittle away the true meaning of the Biblical texts used in the liturgy in order to make them acceptable to the feminist club, comprised largely of nuns and lay employees of the Church's various educational structures and establishments. With a few others, these constituted the feminist core at all the hearings of the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia around the country; but who, on this occasion, met an equally determined opposition.

The struggle over the "woman" question has been fought largely - although not exclusively - between the Vatican and a section of the US Hierarchy. For a considerable period, due to appointments made before the accession of the present Pope, that section of the US Hierarchy appeared likely to become a majority.


The battlefield was that of 'inclusive language' - the calculated attempt to use translations of the Scriptures and other liturgical language, not to transmit the actual words and teachings of Christ and his Apostles, but to manipulate them so as to meet the susceptibilities of feminist ideology. Translation became the vehicle, not for the transmission of meaning, but for its distortion or falsification.

The specific directions now given by the Holy See on this question are reported on pages 4 and 8 of [the print edition of] this issue of AD2000.

As the American Catholic writer, Helen Hull Hitchcock, summed them up in The Catholic World Report (August/September 1997):

"The Vatican norms are, in essence, a point-by-point negation of the US Bishops' 'Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use', adopted in November 1990, in preparation for the revision of the Lectionary for Mass. The revised Lectionary based on these criteria was sent to the Vatican for approval two years later. The Vatican norms were issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ...".

The Holy See thus rejected the translation proposed by the US Bishops.

The key norm (or rule) of the document is Norm 3. It states:

"The translation of Scripture should faithfully reflect the Word of God in the original human languages. It must be listened to in its time-conditioned, at times even inelegant, mode of human expression without 'correction' or 'improvement' in service of modern sensitivities."

The Vatican's two decisions - in relation to women's ordination and inclusive language - will ultimately prove decisive. That is not to say that the struggle initiated by the feminists is about to end. An attempt to play for further time so as to tone down the decision was made at the June 19 meeting of the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops held in Kansas City. It was, however, overwhelmingly defeated by 188 votes to 20. Clearly, there has been a major change in the composition of the US Hierarchy. Nevertheless, there will inevitably be a rearguard action in all Western countries which will have to be fought off.

It is within the framework of these decisions that the planned 1998 statement of the Australian Bishops - to be based on the hearings of The Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia - has especial importance. The US Bishops tried unavailingly for several years to draw up a similar statement without being able to come to any agreement, finally giving it up as a bad job.

What the Australian Bishops will do remains for the future to determine. Since the great majority are faithful to the Holy See in the spirit as well as the letter, they will be unable to meet the pre-conditions which would satisfy the feminist position - namely women's ordination and inclusive language.

The problem which will arise derives from the fact that the Bishops will naturally wish to keep their flocks united or at least to preserve the appearance of unity, since it is clear that genuine unity of hearts and minds is impossible. The danger is that, in order to appease and placate the feminists whose essential claims they will be in no position to meet, the draftsmen will be prompted to use words and express sentiments which, as in the US, may well prove upsetting to those women, throughout the country, who rose .to the occasion and supported the position of the Pope and Holy See in the hearings which have just concluded. This would be deeply discouraging.

Role of women

When he visited Australia in August 1996, Cardinal Martini handled the question of the ordination of women, about which he was asked on more than one occasion, by stating that the Church held three principles relating to the role of women in a kind of "suspension": namely that (1) it had a profound regard for the dignity of women; (2) that it held open to them many roles within the Church, including ordination to the diaconate; and (3) that the Church did not feel itself authorised to ordain women to the priesthood. These would remain in "suspension" for a long period until they could be resolved into a simple, logical principle.

In its report on this statement, AD2000 made the observation that it might have improved the formulary for the Cardinal to have added a fourth principle, as also in "suspension": namely that nothing which the Church says or does should ever weaken the position of woman, considered as wife and mother, which is both biologically anterior to and in terms of essential spiritual worth, arguably superior even to ordination.

That principle should be clearly elevated to No. 2, immediately after the general statement of the Church's profound regard for women.

In the entire debate within the Church, opened up as a consequence of feminist pressures, the Church has scored few points. By insisting on the primary role of wife and mother the Church would tighten its links with the most important component part of its constituency, which, as the most recent figures show, is abandoning religious practice as fast as the men.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 10 No 8 (September 1997), p. 2

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